Focusing on Soft Skills in the Classroom

Rachael Kettner · July 15, 2020

Soft skills in the classroom is a natural fit.  Soft skills are deeply embedded within Social/Emotional learning and truly cannot be separated. Soft skills are not new to any classroom, it’s truly just a matter of changing your vocabulary, redefining the things you do already daily.  When time is always a constraint, with the exception of a pandemic, you can incorporate these skills almost overnight and emphasize daily in seconds in any classroom K-12 and beyond.  

In the couple of Character Strong trainings I have been to, the quote from John Norlin that sticks with me always is this “we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught.”  Students get a better understanding of what soft skills look like and how they are incorporated into various learning opportunities in the classroom especially when we remind them about the various skills they may use in their learning for the day.


By providing importance to these skills, it allows students to see the validity of them within a classroom and as they step out of the classroom into their daily lives.  Implementing soft skills and placing a focus on them in a classroom is a starting point.  But how can you give even more meaning, more understanding of them to students for them to not only use but improve in their soft skills?   


Self-reflection and assessment of their own skills along with goal setting tied around soft skills can really reinforce the skills and push students to think about soft skills with depth.  Soft skills are all around us but for them to be incorporated in any setting, you must first establish a culture of trust, which leads to the ability to take risks.  


We as teachers must cultivate trust and risk-taking in our classrooms to foster growth in students' soft skills.  When trust and risk-taking occur, students then feel comfortable enough to push themselves in areas that they aren’t as strong in such as communication. 


The focus on soft skills in my classroom has morphed over the last three years.  The soft skills that I identified and used for my students are: collaboration, accountability, critical thinking, creativity, communication, and initiative.  Three years ago, the focus was minimal, the words/concepts were introduced and hung on the wall.  Last year, I really placed more emphasis on them as I developed various descriptors for each soft skill for students to have a better understanding of each skill.  Students would self-assess quarterly over each descriptor, I would add each soft skill to the daily learning and try to incorporate a verbal reminder before most activities of the soft skills that would be used and/or that I would be looking for within the activity.  This year, the focus, the assessment, and the outcomes have become stronger and more refined.  With that, students have a better sense of not only what the soft skills are, but how they are doing as an individual with each soft skill.  Throughout this process, students have improved and I too have seen the benefits as well, not just for them as people, but for myself to become a better teacher.  This is why I’m here, I want to share what incorporating and focusing on soft skills has done for all involved in my classroom and a little on how I go about it so maybe you can place a focus on them in your classroom with some ease.


Besides the aforementioned strategies, the one I’ll be sharing is the newest strategy I have incorporated into my classroom.  Although it is new, it has been a process and it too can change and improve but in the meantime, I see it’s potential.  So let’s get started…..


I truly believe in my students ability to assess themselves in many areas and as spring fever was in full bloom last week, I decided that each student needed to self-assess where they were with their soft skills.  Although we usually do this quarterly, it was apparent that students needed to be reminded of the expectations within my classroom.  I created a paper version of my soft skills, changed the criteria in which they were to assess themselves.  In this case, for each soft skill students were to use their critical thinking to decide which one descriptor that they were doing well at and one that they needed to improve.  This forced students into making some real decisions since they couldn’t just choose all the descriptors. 


My first class came in the door, it was a Friday morning and this approach was new to them, there were questions.  They didn’t get it. I had to act fast, so I went through the check-in under the document camera for all to see and went through my thought process aloud for them to hear, I then modeled not only what they were to do but my own strengths and areas to focus on.  That in itself was eye-opening!  I truly believe in practicing what you preach methodology in my classroom and demonstrated it to my students.  As the next class came in the door, I modeled my planning statement to them as I shared with them that my own assessment of myself that they were seeing was 100% valid and that I had room for growth as well.  


With that, students moved through each of the six soft skills highlighting their strengths one color, and their area of improvement another.  When students were done identifying by highlighting, they were then to choose one area of improvement to focus on for the three weeks before spring break.  Once they identified the one that they would work on, they were to create a planning statement.  With the planning statement, they had to write the descriptor that they were going to focus on and devise a strategy on how to meet that goal in the timeframe given.  


During this process, there was no random highlighting or just going through the motions.  Students were held accountable to their goal setting by meeting with me face to face in class and physically reading their planning statements aloud to me prior to turning it in.  If students' statements were too vague or didn’t have a strong enough strategy, we were able to have a conversation to improve it before they walked away.  As the conversations continued throughout the day, I began asking students how they would know if they met their goal, what would success look like, they needed to define success so they would know it when they reached it.  This continued to push them in their thinking about soft skills with depth.  

As their teacher, and as I went through 150 student conversations in the day, I found myself having an AHA moment myself that if I was going to ask students to focus on a goal to improve, I needed to take all their goals and provide the proper learning opportunities over the next three weeks to make sure they had time to practice and improve.  The process was very eye-opening to me and for students to be successful, we were going to need to work together for the greater good.  


When all the dust settled on this new process, I thought I better have an opportunity for students to reflect individually on their goals when the three weeks were up so I came up with a few reflection questions.  I plan on handing back their soft skills check-in paper along with the reflection questions to allow for some real deep reflection to take place.  I too plan on meeting my goal that I established for myself and go through the reflection process verbally with my students when they return.  This whole process was a powerful reminder once again of the value of focusing on soft skills through the use of self-assessment and reflection as well as that we all need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. 



Soft Skills Check-In



Rachael Kettner

Rachael Kettner is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and has been teaching middle school Science for the majority of her 19 years in public schools in Arizona, Idaho and Washington State. She currently teaches 7th and 8th grade Science at Selkirk Middle School just outside of Spokane, WA.